Review: Max Gate, by Damien Wilkins
Aardvark Bureau, 2016. 223 pp. $15
It’s 1928, and Thomas Hardy lies dying at his home, Max Gate, in Wessex. This may strike you as a pretty thin premise for a novel, even one as short as this. And if you’re like me and think that Jude the Obscure and Return of the Native are dreary, ponderous sermons, you might have decidedly mixed feelings about the key event in the story.
But never fear. Though much beloved in his household, the failing Mr. Hardy has also evoked less exalted sentiments, even from people who’ve never read him. More importantly, Wilkins has crafted a subtle, insightful exploration of fame–what it means, how people behave in its presence, and who winds up paying the price. And who better to recount the conflicts over divided loyalties and greed than a trusted housemaid? Nellie Titterington respects the dying man, but she feels greater empathy for his put-upon wife, Florence, to whom she’s often a confidante. However, that doesn’t prevent Nellie from seeing and recounting the foibles (and worse) of Mrs. F., as she calls her; the other residents of Max Gate, including the dog, Wessex; and visitors eager to profit from the writer’s passing while calling their interest something else.
Nellie’s voice, clever, lucid, and occasionally ribald, makes a boon companion in a story like this. She narrates in retrospect, but Wilkins handles this perspective wisely and unobtrusively. The essential action occurs over a very few days, without a prologue or jarring shifts in time, and with minimal yet sufficient backstory. Better still, he uses Nellie’s retrospection to make a key point. Unlike other characters in the novel, she refuses to think of these few days as the most significant time of her life, and in later years, she neither volunteers nor denies having witnessed them. To her, becoming a teacher, marrying when she thought she had no chance of it, and raising a daughter matter much more–and no one at Max Gate ever learns of these events. It’s a refreshing comment on the human desire to bask in limelight of whatever source, when true happiness comes from a life well lived.
What’s more, though Nellie grants that Hardy’s a great writer, he’s not a great man, she says; he’s selfish, thoughtless of others, gruff, and not especially brave. No one bears the brunt more than Florence, his second wife, who believes that he noticed whenever she wasn’t there but never longed for her return. Her advisers, whether from blindness or self-interest, assure her after Hardy’s death that she must be wrong, that he loved and cherished her. But they’re so quick to press her about their pet projects, that you have to wonder whether they see her any more clearly than her late husband. Let’s push to have Tom buried at Westminster Abbey, they urge, despite the dead man’s express wish to lie in Wessex. Florence, have you thought about his collected papers?
Then there’s the local reporter, Alex, who never lets decency or common sense prevent him from asking intrusive questions, and who quotes passages from Hardy’s work as evidence that he, Alex, deserves more consideration than the man from The Times. Alex also carries on a flirtation with Nellie, who eventually realizes that he’s untrue to her:
His nose is red from the cold, a detail I’m meanly glad to see since it makes Alex look a bit silly. We haven’t spoken since the day I saw him in town with a woman who wasn’t me, and I walked up to them, as if under a drug, and said words that really felt as if they were attached to a piece of string and I was some magician making an impossible length of choking material emerge from my mouth. Silk.
So Nellie is definitely someone who can stick up for herself–in contrast to Florence–and the reader is left to decide whether Alex actually likes her or is simply trying to get an ally inside Max Gate. Nellie also knows how to laugh, and I did too; for example, at the story about the dog walking the length of a table to eat the meat off Lady Fitzgerald’s fork.
Max Gate moves briskly and is no longer than it needs to be. I sometimes wondered why a few random paragraphs appeared at the start of certain sections, usually literary ramblings or anecdotes. Some were clever, some opaque. But Max Gate is a witty, winning book.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.